Before visiting Munich for Oktoberfest I read a lot about it but nothing seemed to explain the feeling of it. Perhaps that is because most people writing about it had so much to drink that the details are fuzzy. A few specifically admitted that. Still after visiting Oktoberfest for a single 3 hour stretch I think I got a pretty good feel for it. I also wanted to provide some perspective from someone who expected to hate the beers and the extra benefit of a husband who I thought would be so miserable that he would make me leave early. He only drinks dark beer at home.
The awesome part about Oktoberfest is that they don’t charge admission. Which means there are no lines to get in just a constant stream of people migrating from the nearby train stations into the festival area. Imagine your county fair (San Diego County Fair feels pretty similar) without those annoying lines to get in or trying to park (or paying to park). If you are staying anywhere within the s-bahn lines it is a simple matter of transferring at the central station and taking one of the few trains to the right stop and walking in.
It really makes you wonder why more festivals don’t simply do away with entrance fees (and further makes me wish San Diego had decent public transit that connected all the different neighborhoods as well as Munich does). Once inside it is like any other festival. You have booths just selling food, others just selling souvenirs, carnival rides, (you have to be pretty drunk to think getting on these is a good idea considering how large the drinks are) and then the main attraction–the massive beer tents. There are tents for most of the major breweries around town and all but one require you to be seated to order a beer. This seemed stupid at first but then I realized how heavy the massive beer mugs are while empty let alone full.
Because I hate tourist traps I purposefully avoided going to the rowdy tents that are frequented by foreigners. This meant going straight for Augustiner (the tent most frequented by locals). I arrived at 11am or so and at first I thought we got there too early. Then I realized there are only about a third of the seats available for people to simply walk to and sit down. The rest are reserved far in advance. I wanted to sit at a table that already had people. My husband insisted we grab an empty table. This was good because we invited the first group of English speakers to join us. As much as I like Germans, festivals are no fun without conversation in your own language. And my German is horrible.
Even Augustiner has English menus. Right away I ordered a liter of the festival beer and my husband ordered a liter of the radler (also similar to a shandy), half festival beer and half sprite. He enjoyed the radler. We also ordered a pork knuckle. Thank God they didn’t make us order two. Those things are huge. Soon after our food arrived we saw a group of Americans about to sit at a table across from us. We invited them to join us and they did so gladly. We recommended the pork knuckle and they ordered a round of beer.
The beers were a whole 10 euros a liter, more expensive than the prices in town but it is a markup I gladly pay to avoid having to buy a ticket to get inside. The food wasn’t too expensive compared to the rest of the city. Everything is cash only. Many things were meant to be shared, including whole fish that when you pay by weight end up very expensive. I wasn’t expecting to like the festival beer. It didn’t blow me away or hit some beer pleasure spot but I didn’t have a problem downing a liter.
The festival beer is basically a 6% helles. Helles is the Bavarian version of a pilsner with less hop bite and more malt. The hops were more obvious when drinking the regular 4.8% helles the following day. Thankfully the malts used don’t taste like too much so it is a very drinkable 6% beer. The German hops are much more subdued so someone who doesn’t know what they taste like may not notice them at all. What makes the festival beer drinkable is how awesomely fresh it is. And at the Augustiner tent they are pulling it from large wooden casks.
The beer halls are basically massive tents with large wooden picnic tables pushed really close together so you can only fit between them on the short sides. As you slowly drink through your liter of beer you start to see how fantastic it is to be sitting at a table. In the three hours I was sitting there I drank one liter of the festival beer and shared a liter of radler with my husband, after he had one on his own. We also are the pork knuckle along with the potatoes it comes with. Pork knuckle has a crispy skin and otherwise is a bunch of delicious tender pork meat around a large bone.
I could have stayed all day but since I only had two days in Munich I left after 3 hours so I could visit some other places. I only was able to stand the full 3 hours because I had some fantastic conversations with the group that joined us. Also as the place filled up the atmosphere became more festive and it was certainly contagious. As you can see in the photos I didn’t bother buying the festival garb and I don’t think it makes much sense unless you plan to visit Oktoberfest more times in the future.
As a craft beer fan and a hop head the festival beer was surprisingly drinkable. As I will describe in a separate article I found the local helles beer to be quite tasty once I recognized the German hops. Any serious beer drinker should consider visiting Oktoberfest at least once. I don’t recommend drinking five liters like many people did, at least not at festival prices. In smaller bars around town you could get a liter of the local helles for around 6 euro 50, which was a better beer. Meeting with other travellers and bonding over beers is the core draw of the festival unless you like your family enough to travel with them and want to sit for hours with them over beers.
The lack of entrance fee was especially nice because I could simply leave when I had experienced what I wanted without worrying about getting my money’s worth. If you absolutely hate beer you can order other things but you might as well order a radler. Raising your glasses with the music and letting out a triumphant prost with the rest of the room is something you can’t easily replicate. I may not return to Oktoberfest but I won’t soon forget the experience.